DES MOINES, IOWA – Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the Iowa caucuses had become the conventional wisdom. But Iowa politics is an expectations game, and Pete Buttigieg played it expertly.
With more than 70 percent of precincts reporting, Iowans were giving a slight edge to Buttigieg, who represents the proposition that the Democratic Party’s future is more centrist and practical. Buttigieg, the 38-year-old ex-mayor of a small Indiana city and the only military veteran in the race, argues that he is in the best position to win back Democrats who defected to President Donald Trump in 2016.
He was running just ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 78-year-old democratic socialist who has long been a lonely voice on the extreme left of American politics. Making his second bid for the presidency, Sanders’ “revolution” has brought new young voters into the party — and he argues that is the way to beat Trump.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, long a bane to Wall Street investors for her embrace of a wealth tax, was coming in third in the early results. But Sanders’ win complicates her path to the nomination because she had presented herself as a more electable proponent of many of Sanders’ liberal policies.
Sanders’ strong showing was widely expected. Buttigieg was more of a surprise, giving him a legitimate claim as the establishment front-runner and best hope to stop Sanders’ nomination.
That was a supposed to be Joe Biden’s job. One of the Democratic Party’s longest-tenured and most loyal servants, the former vice president has always struggled in Iowa and was trailing Warren in the partial results. A fourth-place finish would be an embarrassment, and one that could raise serious questions about his central claim to the nomination: that he is the most likely to beat Trump.
Biden must now stage a comeback in New Hampshire and show his formidable strength among Hispanic and black Democrats in Nevada and South Carolina before the Super Tuesday primaries next month.
If Biden falters, a new wild card is ready to take his place: Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and billionaire founder of the parent company of Bloomberg News, who has skipped the early states and instead spent more than $300 million in television ads in the rest of the country.
In response to the chaos in Des Moines, Bloomberg ordered a doubling of his advertising spending and increased his national staffing to more than 2,000.
Buttigieg could also fill the moderate spot that might be filled by Bloomberg, but that is a much tougher job for Buttigieg, who has a far smaller war chest and ability to compete outside the early states. Buttigieg may have passed the first key test for Democrats in 2020, but faces a steep climb to persuade voters in the upcoming races as well.
The Iowa contest is the first in a long cycle of caucuses and primaries that stretches until June — awarding just 1 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination. Iowa normally offers outsize momentum to its strong finishers as they head to New Hampshire, whose primary is in a week. It is not clear if the results will be as much of a springboard as in the past, given the difficulties plaguing the caucuses.
In the days leading up to Iowa, Buttigieg’s campaign played down the importance of an Iowa win and was already looking further down the calendar — even though he had spent an enormous amount of time in the state and traveled to rural areas where Democrats rarely venture.
But as the caucuses wrapped up Monday night, Buttigieg collected data from his network of precinct captains and saw something others didn’t: He was eligible to win votes in 83 percent of precincts and was especially strong in rural precincts.
Buttigieg’s captains also played the caucus game well, picking up supporters from candidates eliminated after the first round of head-counting.
At one big caucus site in downtown Des Moines, only Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren were showing signs of strength in the first round. Buttigieg vacuumed up votes in the second round, snagging supporters from Biden and Klobuchar.
In small, rural precincts like one in Colo County, Klobuchar voters switched to Buttigieg. And then there was luck: At a firehouse precinct in suburban Des Moines, Buttigieg and Warren tied. The coin toss went to Buttigieg.
While others hedged their bets or gave standard stump speeches, Buttigieg was not shy about claiming the mantle of Iowa winner and made himself the story of the night. “By all indications we are going on to New Hampshire victorious,” he told supporters at Drake University.
The contest now moves to New Hampshire, whose orderly primary elections and independent-minded voters often provide a counterpoint to the chaotic scrums of Iowa caucuses. Since 1976, only three Democrats have won both the Iowa and New Hampshire contests: Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and John Kerry.
Sanders, who lost Iowa narrowly in 2016, came back to win New Hampshire that year. He is well positioned in New Hampshire, which shares a border with his home state of Vermont, and he has been surging in the polls there in recent weeks.
But his presidential campaign presents a unique dilemma for Democrats: Sanders votes with Democrats in Congress but has never formally joined the party.
He has shown an ability to attract new, younger voters into the Democratic fold, but in doing so has pulled the party’s center of gravity decidedly to the left.
And his supporters aren’t always loyal to the party. In 2016, as many as 12 percent of them crossed over to vote for Trump in the general election — probably enough to swing Rust Belt battlegrounds.
Buttigieg, on the other hand, has been appealing to former Trump supporters. He campaigned in many corners of Iowa where other Democrats didn’t go — the so-called Obama-Trump counties — and made not-so-subtle comparisons to former President Barack Obama. He has done the same in New Hampshire.
It was Obama’s 2008 victory in Iowa that helped set aside any concern that a “skinny kid with a funny name,” as Obama put it, could win over middle Americans. Obama is black; Buttigieg is gay. Iowa Democrats have said that neither matters anymore.
Winning Iowa is a long way from winning the party’s nomination. But for both Buttigieg and Sanders, it would go a long way toward settling questions of their electability.